Foster-Care Reforms Often Ignore Problems Children Face in School

By Deborah L. Cohen — June 05, 1991 16 min read
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To understand the emotional quandary that many foster children face, picture a piece of tape, Robert Ayasse, a social worker in Contra Costa County, Calif., says.

Imagine, he says, if you were to stick the tape on a surface and pull it up, press it down again and pull it up again, and then keep doing that over and over. Sooner or later, he points out, the tape would lose its ability to adhere.

Essentially, explains Mr. Ayasse, who counsels children in a unique school-based tutoring and counseling program for foster children in four California school districts, the same thing happens to many children placed in foster care.

And it may help explain why children forced to spend their formative years in what experts term “foster-care drift” not only have trouble maintaining emotional attachments, but also succeeding in school.

Evidence is growing, however, that officials are becoming more aware of the magnitude of the problem and are taking steps to improve state and local foster-care systems.

In some places, the problem has become so acute that the courts have stepped in to take over supervision of child-welfare systems. And states have passed hundreds of laws and created dozens of programs to bolster child-welfare services and fund family-preservation efforts.

Key child-advocacy groups have also placed new emphasis on the need to improve the foster-care system, and child-welfare reform is gaining attention in the Congress.

But, by and large, advocates acknowledge, the problems foster-care children face in school have not been a major focus of child-welfare reform efforts.

“The issue of the educational needs of children in foster care is a critical need that’s really been ignored,” said Mary Lee Allen, director of the child-welfare and mental-health division of the Children’s Defense Fund.

Under state and local foster-care systems, officials can remove neglected and abused children from their homes and place them temporarily with foster parents, or, for those who require more supervision or clinical attention, in group homes or residential treatment centers.

By the time children are placed in foster care, however, many have suffered debilitating physical and emotional traumas as a result of parental neglect and abuse.

Unfortunately, experts say, the youngsters’ ordeal often does not end there.

Instead of finding a sense of security and stability to help heal their wounds, many languish in the foster-care system for months, or even years, moving from placement to placement and from school to school.

Often, their hopes of being reunited with family members are raised only to be dashed, time and again.

Hobbled by budget constraints, legal and bureaucratic backlogs, and excessive caseloads, overworked and underpaid case workers are hard pressed even to ensure children’s protection from harm and provide for their basic shelter, food, and medical care.

Child-welfare programs “have become little more than emergency rooms ... responding to reports of child abuse and neglect,” Charles Hayward, secretary of the Delaware Department of Services for Children, Youth, and their Families, told the Senate Finance Committee last year.

Against that backdrop, child-welfare experts say, it is not surprising that the educational needs of children in foster care often fall by the wayside.

Many child-welfare systems “are so bad that, although education is undeniably a critically important element, what we are trying to focus on is protecting the child from abuse and neglect,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, director of the Children’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union.

“It is pretty pathetic when you consider education a luxury,” she said. “But when you are talking about basic life-and-death issues, you have to focus on that.”

Things other pupils take for granted--such as having the proper academic transcripts and medical immunizations to enroll in school--often get hopelessly bogged down or lost in the shuffle of foster-care placements.

And bonds with classmates and teachers, assessments of children’s special educational needs, and placements in appropriate programs can be abruptly interrupted by changes in foster-care placements.

Few foster children receive any special, sustained help within the school system to help them recover from family traumas and to cope with the daily instability that can distract them from their studies. And many leave the school system unprepared financially and emotionally to support themselves.

Not surprisingly, experts say, studies show foster children consistently lag behind in school and are at high risk of dropping out.

“When I think of all the needs children have in a ‘normal’ environment and how hard it is for ‘normal’ kids to make it, I don’t understand how little, medium, or big kids who don’t know where they are and what their support system is--and who don’t have the security of home and family--can function at all,” said David S. Liederman, executive director of the Child Welfare League of America.

“One would not be suprised that they are not measuring up” academically, he added.

“When a child doesn’t know where he is going to be, there’s just no way he can function in a classroom,” said Elaine Murphy, a 2nd-grade teacher at the Rio Vista Elementary School in Contra Costa County, Calif., where the child-welfare and education systems have joined forces to offer a program of school-based tutoring and counseling for foster children. (See story, page 14.)

The sheer numbers of children in foster care--and the increasingly complex problems facing them--"are going to have a tremendous impact on the education system,” said Ramona L. Foley, director of foster care for the South Carolina Department of Social Services, where a task force steering child-welfare reform has proposed some steps to sensitize schools to foster children’s special needs.

Experts estimate that 360,000 children are in foster care--an 18 percent increase since 1986--and that the figure could top half a million by 1995.

At the same time, said Gordon Evans, information director for the National Foster Parent Association in Houston, the number of foster homes in the public sector has dropped from 125,000 in 1988 to 100,000 today--and the “exodus continues.”

Mr. Evans also noted that the average number of children per home is 3.7--up from about 1.4 in 1983--and he estimated that “tens of thousands” care for six, seven, and eight youngsters at a time.

Experts also say social workers who oversee foster placements often have caseloads of 40 to 60 and more, well above the optimal level of 28 recommended by the Child Welfare League.

Another concern among children’s advocates is that many of those employed in child-welfare agencies are not trained in social work.

“You’ve got people making major decisions about the future lives of children in jeopardy who really don’t have any training in that regard,” noted Isadora Hare, staff director of the National Association of Social Work’s commission on education.

According to a national survey by the American Public Welfare Association that drew reponses from about half the states, more than half the children in foster care in 1987 changed placements at least once, and 20.1 percent were moved two to four times. Nearly 7 percent were in six or more placements, up from 5.8 percent in 1985.

“No Place to Call Home: Discarded Children in America,” a 1990 report from the House Select Commmittee on Children, Youth, and Families, noted that, by 1988, 42 percent of the children entering foster care were under age 6, and that 46 percent of all children in foster care were members of minorities--more than twice their percentage of the child population.

In recent years, increasing numbers of state and local child-welfare systems across the country have faced legal challenges from the a.c.l.u.'s Children’s Rights Project, and several--most extensively in Connecticut--are currently under court supervision.

And, in the first decision of its kind, a federal judge recently ruled that the District of Columbia’s child-welfare system violated foster children’s constitutional rights by failing to protect them from harm. (See Education Week, May 1, 1991.)

The U.S. Supreme Court, meanwhile, agreed last month to hear arguments in an Illinois case that calls into question whether children can sue to enforce a provision of the 1980 Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act that requires states to make “reasonable efforts” to prevent foster-care placement.

As the number of children entering foster care has increased, so has the severity of their problems.

Rising rates of child poverty, child abuse, and substance abuse by pregnant women and parents of young children are “propelling children into out-of-home care at an alarming rate,” the select committee’s report notes.

The “crack” cocaine and aids epidemics, it adds, have also played a role in bringing unprecedented numbers of medically fragile infants and troubled youths into out-of-home care.

Growing numbers of “boarder babies” left in hospitals by parents unable to care for them are relegated to the foster-care system early on, and children of substance-abusing parents are targets for abuse and neglect that can lead to placement later on. About 80 percent of the abuse and neglect cases reported in the District of Columbia in 1988, for example, were said to be related to substance abuse by parents.

“Foster care,” Ms. Foley of South Carolina’s Department of Social Services said, “is just a small window on the problems in our society.”

“The current family foster-care system was built on the premise that there would be sufficient numbers of families with wage-earning fathers and at-home mothers willing and able to donate their time and money to care for children whose problems primarily were only dependency and neglect,” states a recent report from the National Commission on Family Foster Care, a collaborative effort of the Child Welfare League and the National Foster Parent Association.

“We can’t serve 1990’s children in a 19th-century program,” it adds.

Foster care was once seen as a “short-term respite” from such family woes as the loss of a job or a legal or health problem, said Philip B. Bowser, a Roseburg, Ore., school psychologist who has been a foster parent.

“But in the last 10 years,” he added, “we have been seeing more and more kids with multiple, very severe problems, with the chances of their parents’ being involved again pretty minimal.”

At the same time, a consensus has emerged among child-welfare experts and policymakers that children should remain, if at all possible, in their parents’ care.

No matter how extreme their family circumstances, most foster children “want so badly to go home,” said Ivy Knott, a teacher in the Foster Youth Services program in Contra Costa County.

Ms. Knott said a common refrain among foster children, and one that characterizes the burden many bear, is: “All I want is a real mom and dad. Nobody wants me.”

Many experts have argued that some of the money now spent to keep children in foster care would be more wisely invested in preventing placements in the first place.

To that end, “family preservation” programs operating in some 30 states assign caseworkers to homes virtually around the clock for one to two months to help families get through crises that put children at risk of being removed from their4home. The workers help with everything from paying rent and helping with household repairs to taking children to the doctor or mediating family conflicts. One such effort in Michigan--the “Families First” program--has been credited with helping to slow the rate of new foster placements at a time when such rates are increasing nationally.

North Dakota, Maryland, and Missouri, meanwhile, have undertaken plans for broad reforms in their child-welfare systems, and Iowa and San Diego are among the states and localities indirectly addressing the issue by rethinking how they deliver and coordinate services to children and families.

Parenting programs in Minnesota and Missouri, as well as drop-in centers offering parenting, health, education, and child-care services in Maryland, Connecticut, Vermont, and Kentucky, are also designed to relieve some of the family stresses and behaviors that can lead to abuse, delinquency, and out-of-home placement.

The Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act, a landmark federal law passed in 1980, required states to provide services to help families avert placement, place children in the least restrictive setting when necessary, and reunite families as soon as possible.

Across the country, states have been experimenting with strategies to prevent foster placements, ease reunification when placements occur, and ensure safe, permanent situations for children when reunification is not possible.

A recent survey by the National Conference of State Legislatures shows states have passed some 2,500 laws since 1983 aimed at bolstering child-welfare services and funding family-preservation efforts.

But Ms. Lowry of the a.c.l.u. said that many child-welfare systems have not made “reasonable efforts” to keep families together--and that some have used that requirement “to justify the failure to remove children from dangerous situations,” without offering services that might ease the family crisis creating the danger.

Some experts also argue that the current foster-care system has created incentives for keeping children in foster care.

“One of the major anomalies faced by the states as they move toward significant child-welfare reform is the perverse incentives created by our system of financing and reimbursing” such services, Elaine Szymoniak, a state senator from Iowa, recently told a U.S. House panel.

For example, she said, the Foster Care and Adoption Assistance Program--Title IV E of the Social Security Act--provides federal matching funds in the form of an open-ended entitlement to reimburse states for the cost of keeping children in out-of-home placements.

But aid under Section IV B, the Child Welfare Services Program--which funds alternative approaches such as in-home family-support services--is based on state size and per-capita income and subject to annual appropriations.

Reforming the child-welfare and foster-care systems tops the agenda of key child-advocacy groups, and, in February, the National Commission on Family Foster Care issued a “Blueprint for Fostering Infants, Children, and Youth in the 1990’s.” The report urges numerous legislative and policy reforms and promotes family over institutional care and placement with relatives when feasible.

Child-welfare reform is also gaining attention in the Congress. The ''child welfare and preventive services act,” introduced by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Lloyd Bentsen in January, would provide $1.7 billion over five years in the form of a capped entitlement to states for innovative services to support families and substance-abuse treatment programs for pregnant women and mothers.

It also includes measures to streamline foster-care funding and adoption procedures; improve service coordination, data collection, and training; and ease the transition out of foster care. The bill would also expand Medicaid to help meet children’s health needs.

Representative Thomas Downey of New York, who chairs the Human Resources Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee, has been holding hearings this spring to revive and refine a similar measure that died last year, and moderate Republicans have been working on an alternative proposal.

The Bush Administration, meanwhile, has proposed increasing Title IV B funding for preventive services by $90 million per year.

But it has also proposed cutting administrative costs associated with “pre-placement” services under Title IV E by $1.7 billion over five years, a move opposed by child-welfare groups.

Both the national commission on foster care and the Bentsen measure call for collaboration between the child-welfare system and the social-services, health, and education sectors to help remove bureaucratic roadblocks that impede families’ access to services that could help avert foster placement.

The foster-care commission’s recent report calls on foster parents and social workers to provide or arrange for education services and urges enforcement of special-education laws as they relate to children in foster care.

But the 50-member commission--which included a wide range of social-services and children- and family-policy experts--did not include a single representative of the public4education sector, and experts acknowledge that the child-welfare reform efforts have not directly addressed education.

Charles P. Gershenson, senior policy analyst for the Center for the Study of Social Policy, notes that, as early as the 1950’s, there was recognition that psychological treatment should be “another dimension’’ of child-welfare services that historically had focused on food, clothing, and shelter.

But, he wrote in a 1986 paper, “concern about the health and education of the child remained in the background, neither ignored completely nor promoted assiduously.”

Trudy Festinger, a professor at the New York University School of Social Work, said foster-care agencies “lay heavy stress on socio-psychological matters” rather than children’s educational needs, and rarely highlight educational issues in their training programs or hire educational consultants.

“In other words, education has been given short shrift,” Ms. Festinger concluded in No One Ever Asked Us: A Postcript to Foster Care, a book based on her 1983 study of 300 young adults who grew up in foster care in New York City.

The education of children in foster care began to draw some attention, Ms. Allen of the Children’s Defense Fund noted, when states began implementing the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act, which required that they set up information systems, develop individualized case plans, and conduct periodic reviews of children in state-supervised foster care.

The reviews revealed that, “not only were there no supports” in place to ease 16- and 17-year-olds out of foster care, she said, but that many--beset by frequent moves, lost credits, and inattention to special needs--"were not close to leaving high school.”

Alarmed that such teenagers could be headed for homelessness or welfare dependency, Senator Daniel P. Moynihan, Democrat of New York, introduced legislation, enacted in 1986, that channeled funds to states for “independent living skills” programs to help young adults exiting foster care pursue high-school diplomas and vocational training and learn about budgeting, career planning, and finding housing.

While the measure has made a “tremendous” difference, Mr. Evans of the National Foster Parent Association noted, many foster youths are financially unprepared by age 21, the latest cutoff age for foster payments in most states, to pursue college or to strike out on their own.

Other hurdles for these young adults, experts say, range from limits on the amount of savings the law allows them to accrue while in foster care to a shortage of housing in price ranges they can afford.

In another move addressing the schooling of foster children, the Congress in 1989 amended case-plan requirements to require that data on the child’s educational institution, school records, and grade level be included, and that foster placement “takes into account proximity to the school” the child is attending when placed. For older children, the plan must also describe independent-living programs.

“What the legislation doesn’t include,” Mr. Gershenson of the Center for the Study of Social Policy said, is “what you do about it” when a child’s educational needs fall through the cracks.

“The implication is that just by being aware of it, a [foster-care] agency will do something,” which is not necessarily so, he said.

Next week: A look at how foster children have fared in school, and how experts recommend reorienting the education and child-welfare systems to better meet their needs.

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A version of this article appeared in the June 05, 1991 edition of Education Week as Foster-Care Reforms Often Ignore Problems Children Face in School

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